Politics

#OperationHashtag: How a Hindutva FB Group Pushes Politically Divisive Topics on Twitter

A 8,000 member strong group whose goal is to discuss, coordinate and help manufacture trending right-wing hashtags, its latest 'success' was the targeting of the serial Paatal Lok and Bollywood as 'anti-Hindu'.

New Delhi: What is your first response when you stumble upon a problematic hashtag that is trending on Twitter?

Is it to believe that this is an organic conversation that is being debated and discussed by thousands of people? Is it to tweet out the strongest possible counter, in the hopes that you will be able to convince the ‘other’ side that their stance is flawed?

In both cases, your actions may be futile.

The practice of manipulating Twitter trends to spread political propaganda is not new. In the past, there has been evidence of organised campaigns in India using ‘volunteers’ or automated bots to artificially boost traffic towards specific political issues like demonetisation and other initiatives of the Narendra Modi government.

To these orchestrated campaign practices, one more method can be added – private Facebook groups that discuss, coordinate and appear to help manufacture trending hashtags.

One private, right-wing group that this author gained access to included over 8,000 members, all of whom look to boost certain social media trends. It is one of the many Facebook groups that help make Twitter discourse more vitriolic.

While their actual impact may not be explicitly quantifiable, the group’s members claim that they have been an important force behind trending hundreds of Hindutva related hashtags in just the last 28 days. In the last few weeks alone, there have been 1,700 posts – a good portion of which are hashtags which have trended on Twitter.

The group doesn’t have a gender or age barrier. The only criterion for one to be added, one member told The Wire, is a ‘proud Hindu’ declaration in their bio and a recommendation from an existing member.

Some of the group’s rules. Photo: Saahil Murli Menghani

The basic principle, even if not clearly stated, is to influence otherwise organic chatter on Twitter.

One source inside this group explained to this author its well-oiled machinery. Members of the group themselves say that the principal objective of these closed-room groups is to make people engage in verbal duels on trivial issues. There are many private Facebook groups which on a daily basis seek to manage the flow of conversations on Twitter.

The private Facebook group that this author gained access to had the word ‘Takeover’ in its name. It also had clearly defined steps laid out for its members on how to make a hashtag trend.

English translation: ‘Suggest a topic for tomorrow. Don’t get angry if the topic suggested by you is not picked. All topics are important but only one can be taken up in a day.’ Photo: Credit: Saahil Murli Menghani

 

Need volunteers from the Takeover team to take up responsibility for the following.
1. Writing explainer for every hashtag they intend to trend.
2. Searching and collecting pictures related to the hashtag they intend to trend.
3. Composing tweets on the topic.
4. If there are policy-related hashtags, like on Temple Endowment Act, Article 30 & Article 25, then for research.
Volunteers need to get in touch, with a list of contributions they want to make.

 

An example of the group taking credit for making a hashtag related to Article 30 trend. Article 30 of constitutionis the “right of minorities to establish and administer educational institutions”, a bugbear of the Hindutva lobby. Photo: Saahil Murli Menghani

The process begins with the admin posting a new hashtag daily in the group, and almost on cue, the members begin tweeting using that hashtag. The group is run in a streamlined manner, with dedicated members assigned a set of specific tasks: composing content for a common pool of tweets or picking pictures or making memes.

By and large, the language used in these tweets is sexist, communal and abusive.

The rot runs deeper – tweets that go against the hashtag or counter its discourse are also shared in the group just so that the members can collectively attack those Twitter users.

An example of a tweet posted that looks to counter the group’s hashtag, #Hinduphobic_Bollywood. This user, Mariya Faizan, later deleted her tweet after being trolled on Twitter. Photo: Saahil Murli Menghani

On May 20, the Takeover group decided to trend #Hinduphobic_Bollywood on Twitter, targeting Amazon Prime’s new web-series Paatal Lok.

Ever since its release, the web series has been hailed as a deft crime thriller. Many have called it a commentary on deteriorating press freedom under the Narendra Modi government.

This emerging narrative could not have been easy for the right-wing to digest and hence, the digital warriors have been on an overdrive to counter it, by hook or crook.

At 6:33 pm on May 20, an admin on the private Facebook group put out a post. It read, ‘#Hinduphobic_Bollywood’. Within 4 minutes, came the first tweet with this hashtag.

Photo: Saahil Murli Menghani

As per the group’s rules, the members began sharing screenshots of their tweets on the group as evidence of their contribution. Consistent failure to do so has led to the expulsion of members from the group. For most participants, membership of the group is a matter of prestige which they just can’t afford to lose. The members also tag influencers on both sides of the ideological divide. The idea is to capitalise on an individual’s large following. Eliciting a response is all that matters. Whether that is positive or negative is inconsequential.

Credit: Saahil Murli Menghani

The group began by trolling actor Anushka Sharma, the co-producer of Paatal Lok. They then went after her husband, Virat Kohli. Soon it became about other Bollywood personalities and the usual targets like Sonam Kapoor, Swara Bhasker, Shruti Seth and Vishal Dadlani were in the crosshairs.

Photo: Saahil Murli Menghani

By 8:40 pm, roughly two hours after the first tweet, the private Facebook group helped make #Hinduphobic_Bollywood the 15th trending topic on Twitter. The admin kept updating the group about the progress. By 9:38 pm, the hashtag broke into the top ten, trending sixth on the nationwide chart with 21,000 tweets.

Photo: Saahil Murli Menghani

By 11:10 pm, the hashtag became India’s second trending topic on Twitter. A jubilant admin hailed the group members for their feat. By late night, the hashtag had garnered over 50,000 tweets.

Congratulatory messages began pouring in. But some in the private group were unhappy about the fact that despite half a lakh tweets, they couldn’t make it the top trending hashtag. Some even lamented the fact that their hashtag did not trend above #CycloneAmphan.

Photo: Saahil Murli Menghani

A jubilant post by the group’s admin, celebrating that the hashtag crossed 50,000 tweets. Photo: Saahil Murli Menghani

English translation: We all tried for the number one spot but now #CycloneAmphan is trending on the number 1 spot 😑 (expressionless emoji). But we have sent our message across. Photo: Saahil Murli Menghani

Twitter’s rules clearly state that users aren’t permitted to “artificially amplify or suppress information or engage in behavior that manipulates or disrupts people’s experience” In 2017, a Twitter spokesperson told one global media publication: “Any use of automation to game Trending Topics is in violation of the Twitter Rules, and we have had measures in place to address this since the spring of 2014.”

And yet, whether it’s a Google Docs link that gives paid trolls a few tweet templates from which they can post content to promote a hashtag, or a private Facebook group that discusses and coordinates behaviour, Twitter consistently appears to be one step behind when it comes to manipulation of its social media traffic.

And what does this say of attempting to genuinely engage with a hashtag or debate that appears coordinated? Private groups like the one shown here focus their attention over the course of hours in making ‘Hindutva’ hashtags trend.

The language used in these tweets is sexist, communal and abusive. It is, in essence, a trap laid to attract responses from the ‘other’ side, which many end up falling for.

English translation — 1) 38K, Goodnight. Jai shree Ram. Hail Lord Rama. 2) 2. You(admin) and the entire team are the reason for this success. For selecting the right topic, a good hashtag, & doing a lot of hard work.

English translation: Meanwhile, Shabana Azmi has done a self goal. Allah is cruel (then 2 laughing emojis). (Context – On that day, Shabana Azmi had mistakenly tweeted a picture of 2 kids from some other country and wrote heartbreaking. She was trolled by the RW for ‘running propaganda’.)

English translation: 1) Hardwork has paid off. 2) Our only task is to just keep copying from the content you give and to post it on Twitter 3) Congratulations.

With the sheer volume of their tweets, these groups help make hate-filled and reaction-evoking hashtags trend. Even in the case of #Hinduphobic_Bollywood, influencers from the ‘other’ side jumped in to counter but ended up helping this group.

Are these people interested in an orderly and reasoned exchange of views? If one goes by the discourse on the Facebook group, they are far more interested in spamming your Twitter notifications tab.

Saahil Murli Menghani is a news reporter and anchor with ten years of experience in broadcast journalism. He is known for his #Verified series of stories on social media.